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Drought management for Minnesota cow-calf producers

Quick facts

  • Plan for drought and implement your plan before the situation is critical.
  • If a live water tap is not available, start hauling water well in advance of natural surface water running out.
  • Keeping calves on a low to moderate energy creep will reduce grass intake by as much as 20 percent.
  • Most herds can be kept intact if 10 to 25 percent of the herd is culled before you are out of grass.
  • Early weaning calves reduces the grass intake of cows by about 25 percent.
  • Pests are worse in dry weather. Controlling them will keep your herd more comfortable when they may be low on energy.


Brown beef cow.

When pastures and hayfields are not in good shape, and they are getting worse by the day, it is a good idea for beef cattle operations to start planning for the likelihood of running out of summer grass. At a certain point in the growing season, additional rain will not restore things to normal.

The key to successful drought management is executing your plan before the situation becomes critical. Here are a few considerations for managing your herd in these conditions.

Surface water

In many areas, surface water is the main source of water for grazing cattle. In most instances, when small bodies of surface water are dried up or nearly dried up, it creates several major problems, including cattle having nothing to drink. This, of course, can be remedied if a live water tap is nearby to fill tanks.

If a live water tap is not available, moving cattle out of the pasture or hauling water may be your only alternatives for the short term. Before you make that decision, remember a cow will drink 20 gallons and calves 5 to 8 gallons per day.

That is a lot of water to haul, and you can’t let them run out, or you risk calves getting trampled if you start dumping fresh water in tanks after a couple of days without water. If you are going to haul water, start hauling well in advance of natural surface water running out so cows have a chance to establish their new pecking order before it becomes a dire situation.

Remember that cows will continue to return to an old pond even after it is dried up. This is disastrous for calves who become bogged in the silt at the bottom of the pond bed.

Once the new water supply is established, fence out the old water with a strand of hot wire to keep cattle out of the silt bed.

Creep-feeding calves

Creep-feeding calves could be a possible grass-saver for some outfits. Feed can be expensive, but it may be the only option remaining before carving up the herd.

Keeping calves on a low to moderate energy creep will reduce grass intake by as much as 20 percent.

Culling cows

Selling cows is not something any rancher wants to do, especially mid summer, yet sometimes it is the only option. Selling cows decreases the need for grass. Early summer drought means that mid and late-summer rain will certainly help, but grass yields will still suffer tremendously.

  • Don’t wait until you’re out of grass. Most cow herds can be kept intact if 10 to 25 percent of the herd is liquidated sooner than later. If you have something else to feed them until fall, that is fine, but it probably isn’t very profitable to do so.
  • If you bred early, you could pregnancy-check early and sell opens and late breds. There is no reason to keep feeding the opens, and late-calving cows are the least profitable in your herd.
  • Sell the oldest cows first, even if they are still decent cows, they are the least valuable to your remaining cow herd. If you don’t have many older cows, cut into the older end of the running-age cows (6- to 8-year-olds) next. If you still need to trim, consider cutting into the replacement heifers. This will leave you with a core group of your most valuable cows (3- to 6-year-olds).
  • It is unlikely that selling pairs or bred pairs is a possibility if the drought extends over a significant portion of cow country. Early weaning calves might be the way to go for many outfits if that is the case.

Early wean calves

Early weaning calves may be an option for some outfits to lighten the load on the remaining grass. This practice has been shown to reduce grass intake of cows by about 25 percent.

Calves can be successfully weaned at about 90 days of age and started on feed relatively easily, particularly if they have been on a creep feeder prior to weaning. Nutrition is the key component to a successful early-weaning program.

Consult a nutritionist to formulate a least-cost ration specific to feed ingredients you have on hand.

Other major considerations for early weaning include performing standard vaccinations prior to weaning, controlling dust to mitigate dust pneumonia and adequate fly control.

Hot weather is often a significant component of drought, and heat stress should be managed appropriately to reduce stress in calves as much as possible. Focus on providing shade and plenty of clean water for calves.

Although selling fly-weight calves right off the cow is an option, it isn’t a good option for most producers. Feeding them for a while will give you some flexibility to figure out a marketing strategy.

Pest control

Pest control is a key component of good management every year but becomes even more important in drought years. Cows and calves are hounded relentlessly by biting flies, face flies, mosquitoes and ticks in a pasture setting, and dry weather tends to make it worse.

Cattle use a lot of energy fighting flies and bunch, which makes heat stress worse. So providing some relief from flies to cattle on grass or in drylots will help keep cattle more comfortable.

Dust bags, oilers, rubs and fly tags are all options for good pest control, provided they are kept fresh and current.

Authors: Eric Mousel and Joe Armstrong, DVM, Extension educators

Reviewed in 2023

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